Ron DeSantis isn’t officially running for president yet, but he just suffered through the kind of week a candidate for the highest office in the U.S. would love to forget.
The Florida governor has been seen as the most formidable potential challenger to former President Donald Trump for the 2024 Republican nomination. Yet DeSantis’ early advantage has eroded following miscues over Ukraine policy and as Trump pushed himself back into the spotlight by calling for protests against his potential indictment in New York.
DeSantis’ recent struggles highlight two major vulnerabilities as he sizes up a 2024 run. The first is his lack of experience in foreign policy, a common stumbling block for governors who set their sights on the White House. The second is Trump’s ability to seize national attention and reset the agenda by whipping up his still-fervent backers among the GOP faithful.
On Monday, DeSantis infuriated Trump and his supporters when he called Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s prosecution politically motivated — but then chided the former president for paying “hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair.”
Then, after angering top Republican lawmakers by downplaying Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as a “territorial dispute,” DeSantis backtracked on Wednesday, earning a rebuke from Fox News’s Tucker Carlson.
In private conversations around Tallahassee, just blocks from the governor’s office in Florida’s capital, DeSantis’ allies and advisers acknowledged he’d had a tough week. But they maintained that the Republican primary remains a two-man race between Trump and the 44-year-old governor.
Other observers said the tough stretch shows enthusiasm for DeSantis is fading.
“DeSantis is not ready for prime time. We saw this with Sen. Marco Rubio in 2016,” said Garrett Ventry, a senior adviser to Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik, a Trump ally. “Rubio had this little surge in 2016 and then he imploded. What DeSantis is doing is clearly not working.”
DeSantis has built a strong base of support in Florida – the state Trump also calls home – by pumping out conservative policy on guns and tort reform with the help of a Republican-led state Legislature. Nationally, he’s won admirers by decrying “wokeness” in schools, culture and business.
Florida law has kept DeSantis from fully launching his candidacy. The state Legislature that’s helped push through his agenda must pass a law that would allow him to run for president without giving up his current job. He’s expected to formally announce his run in mid-June, though that timing could move up depending on the polls and political climate, advisers say.
Still, DeSantis and his team have been carefully laying the groundwork for his run. Last fall, he won his second gubernatorial race by about 20 points, a standout victory in an election year when many Republicans struggled. Then he published a book, “The Courage to Be Free,” and promoted it with donors and friendly audiences in key states including Iowa, New York, Illinois, Alabama and Texas. In coming weeks, DeSantis is scheduled to appear in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.
Behind closed doors, the governor has settled on his top staff for his campaign and super PAC, filling key roles with veteran officials experienced in squaring off with Trump.
Ken Cuccinelli, a former top backer of Sen. Ted Cruz, is the founder of Never Back Down, the DeSantis Super PAC. Jeff Roe, a Republican operative who managed Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign and Glenn Youngkin’s surprise gubernatorial win in Virginia in 2021, has signed on as an outside consultant to Never Back Down. The group also just hired Erin Perrine as its communications director. She served as Trump’s 2020 campaign’s communications director.
In the coming weeks, Lauren Lofstrom, the national finance director for Cruz’s 2016 campaign, is expected to join the DeSantis campaign to help woo donors.
A DeSantis spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Despite the campaign’s organization and discipline so far, DeSantis’ efforts to project competence and seem above the fray have been upended as Trump pulls away in the polls.
A new Monmouth University poll showed 41% of GOP voters support Trump as the nominee, while 27% prefer DeSantis. In February, Republican voters supported them equally, at 33%. Trump has pulled ahead with almost every voting bloc, including evangelicals, voters under 65, and those who identify as “very conservative.”
“The fact Trump is polling as strong as he is confirms what we all knew already: Trump is the front-runner and will be hard to beat,” said Alex Conant, communications director for Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Trump has maintained the support of roughly 30% of GOP voters for several years. For DeSantis to succeed in 2024, he and the other Republican candidates will need to consolidate support among the remaining 65% to 70% of GOP voters — a fight that will go more smoothly with fewer in the race. Apart from Trump, the other official candidates are former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and author and conservative activist Vivek Ganapathy Ramaswamy.
While DeSantis has pulled right-leaning voters to his side with his conservative positions on domestic issues, foreign policy has been more perilous. Republicans are divided on just how much support to give Ukraine in the war, but any position that looks like appeasing Putin is likely anathema. Sen. Lindsey Graham called DeSantis’ initial comments on the war a “serious miscalculation.”
To try to repair the damage, DeSantis said in an interview with Piers Morgan on Wednesday that he considered Putin a war criminal who should be “held accountable” for his unprovoked invasion. One DeSantis adviser called it a clarification of his stance, but to critics it looked like a total reversal.
DeSantis has struggled to find a way to handle the Trump team’s attacks on his record, resume and personality. His advisers had wanted to wait several weeks before directly confronting Trump — at least until DeSantis officially declared his candidacy — but the former president’s gains in the polls and his renewed visibility due to his legal problems forced them to act sooner.
The DeSantis team has had discussions about the best way to handle more personal attacks, including ones toward his wife, Casey, but they haven’t settled on a strategy, advisers say.
Another concern is the way the governor will interact with voters in early primary states. DeSantis is scheduled to visit New Hampshire for the first time in mid-April.
Though DeSantis is well-liked by Republican voters in Florida, he has a reputation among donors, fellow lawmakers, operatives and former staffers as someone who can be socially awkward and not adept at small talk. One adviser said DeSantis isn’t comfortable with long stretches of eye contact and not likely to address people he doesn’t know well, even in friendly settings like meetings, or on the golf course.
A DeSantis ally said the governor can be personable when he wants to be, and argued that Republicans like him because he accomplishes conservative goals, rather than spending time glad-handing. It’s unclear how the retail politics necessary in early voting states like New Hampshire and Iowa will test him, and if he can succeed.